I had read very critical reviews about NCL America before I booked. As a result, I was somewhat apprehensive and concerned. Notwithstanding my disappointment with food quality and some other matters that I address below, I was pleasantly surprised. My cruise on the Pride of Hawaii was enjoyable. It was a very civilized and relaxed way to see the Hawaiian Islands. Do not expect a flawless, deluxe cruise experience; but certainly I would not rate my cruise at the bottom of the pack as some reviews did.
We sailed on the Pride of Hawaii on August 28, 2006.
We made our own air transportation arrangements. We flew business class on Air Canada to and from Honolulu via Vancouver, with smooth flights and attentive service.
We were a group of nine -- my wife, my 21-year-old daughter and I formed one party. My brother-in-law, sister-in-law and my nieces and nephew, age 13 to 21, formed the other. We are regular travelers and have visited several parts of the world. It was our first time in Hawaii.
Pre-Cruise We stayed five days at the Hilton Hawaiian Village prior to the cruise. This was plenty of time to adjust to the six-hour time difference, absorb the Hawaiian spirit and enjoy Waikiki and the surrounding area, with its beautiful beach, nearby shopping and parks. We rented a passenger van and visited the west and north coast of Oahu all the way to Turtle Bay. We visited Pearl Harbor (I am a history buff: a respectful memorial, touching in its humble simplicity), the Dole Pineapple Plantation (the mini-train tour in the fields is somewhat deceiving), the northern beaches and the Hawaiian Cultural Center.
We made our way to the Aloha Tower pier around 1 p.m. Embarkation was smooth despite an already long line. The lady at the reception desk was professional, friendly and attentive. We were on board in about 30 minutes. That's all very acceptable considering the number of passengers checking in and the documentation to submit, verify and receive.
The Ship The Pride of Hawaii is a big, modern ship with an air of relatively well-appointed elegance. The decor is contemporary and the use of striking - at times shocking or aggressive - colors prevails throughout the ship. I did not feel like I was among a big crowd (more than 2,500 passengers and 1,500 crew) since public rooms, restaurants, bars and lounges are dispersed throughout the ship on a few decks. However, I was not impressed by the non-imaginative interior architecture of the ship. (By contrast, I was in awe when I saw the multi-deck Centrum concept on recent RCL ships like Navigator of the Seas.) Most public rooms are on a single deck and, save for a tiny mezzanine on Deck 4, you may end up walking deck after deck from the stern to the bow with no particular magic feeling, since the ceiling is just a few feet above your head.
The Cabins Our staterooms were not ready when we embarked, so we were invited to the Aloha Nui Café for a cafeteria-style lunch, or to a special lounge (Cagney's). Around 3 p.m., an announcement said we could proceed to our rooms. My brother-in-law had booked two adjacent deluxe balcony staterooms on Deck 9, mid-ship. The rooms were clean but not that roomy for six persons when converted into sleeping quarters. We had a penthouse suite on Deck 11. My daughter had her own sleeping quarters and bathroom. My wife and I had a separate bedroom with a magnificent marble en-suite and a full window overlooking the ocean. A sizeable living room completed the suite. The decor was colorful and elegant. These were certainly most comfortable and roomy accommodations!
Housekeeping service by the attendant, René, was excellent. He was courteous, discreet and efficient. He made sure that a couple of minor issues with the TV and the safe were resolved in no time. His attitude made us feel welcome and contributed to a pleasant experience with our accommodations.
We had access to a butler and the concierge. We met the concierge only once at a reception and had to leave messages on his cellular phone on the two occasions we tried to contact him. We never heard back. We contacted the butler once to make reservations at a restaurant. He was not able to satisfy our preferences.
The Service We found the staff everywhere, in particular in the restaurants and dining rooms, to be smiling, helpful, courteous, attentive and professional. In the dining areas, the finesse and standards of Asian or European service offered by some other cruise lines may not always be what the staff strives for, but overall we found the quality and efficiency of service by the all-American staff to be commendable. It is comparable if not superior to what you would expect in first class hotels and resorts in North America.
The Restaurants Food quality needs improvement. Judging from our collective experience, there was little consistency in the level of cuisine. Selecting from the limited menu offerings was a hit-or-miss proposition. We had a couple of excellent dinners worth the gourmet label, and some terrible ones that were barely edible. We had cruised eight times before on different lines and dinner was an occasion to seek out and experiment with good cuisine. Not this time. On several occasions, the food had no taste, was weirdly spiced, or was just odd in terms of taste and flavor combinations. This was clearly a disappointment, as we quite enjoy good cuisine and are not afraid to experiment and taste new things. Breakfasts and lunches, which we usually ate in the Aloha Nui Café, were acceptable -- no more, no less. On two occasions my wife and I ate breakfast and lunch at Cagney's, with no particular lasting memory.
Although I did not experience much difficulty with Freestyle Cruising, I remain lukewarm about the concept. You have to plan and reserve in advance, pay extra at most restaurants, and most of the time you might not secure a booking at a time and date you want -- if you can get a booking at all. I understand the logistical difficulties here, but I saw many people complaining and staff trying to keep their cool while incurring the wrath of dissatisfied passengers. It is regrettable that some people will always be insistent, rude, short-tempered and impolite in these circumstances, but this inconvenient situation is unnecessarily irritating. Throughout the week, I saw too many maitre d's arbitrating conflicts and trying to accommodate parties who had come into a particular restaurant as their fourth or fifth choice for the evening. Perhaps the concept promises more flexibility than it can deliver.
On Shore Since we were a party of nine, we rented a car or a van most of the time. The excursions offered by NCL appeared pricey. In Maui and Kauai, it is easy to get around. There is always a beach nearby and the scenery is beautiful everywhere. The road to Hana in Maui is worth taking your time, and do not forget that you have to come back on the same road! The resorts on the other side of the island are beautiful if you want a day at the beach near landscaped gardens. Be careful about the undertow in some areas. Lahaina is worth a visit: Stroll down the main street bordering the ocean. In Kona, you will be tendered from ship to shore, where you can take a leisurely walk, go on various excursions or visit historical sites. In Kauai, the Marriott Hotel Resort is on a beach with a most beautiful view. The Waimea Canyon is worth the drive and the view. The cruise along the Na Pali Coast shortly after leaving Nawiliwili is picturesque. And cruising past the erupting volcano on the Island of Hawaii in the darkness is a magic moment.
The ship's entertainment was acceptable. The variety shows, dancing and singing were average. The magician/illusionist was interesting and spectacular. The two comedians were boring and terrible. No one seemed to laugh or enjoy their sense (lack) of humor.
As I said above, I had read damaging reviews about NCL America before I booked. As a result, I was somewhat apprehensive and concerned. Notwithstanding my criticism about food quality, cruising on the Pride of Hawaii was enjoyable. It was a relaxing way to see the Hawaiian Islands. Our nine-person party has fond memories of our good time there and aboard the ship.